Reviewed on this page:
Y Kant Tori Read - Little Earthquakes - Under The Pink -
Boys For Pele - From The Choirgirl Hotel - To Venus
And Back - Strange Little Girls - Scarlet's Walk - The Beekeeper - American Doll Posse -
Abnormally Attracted To Sin - Midwinter Graces - Night Of Hunters - Gold Dust
With her New Age earth mother persona and constant references to
Mary Magdalene, sex and faeries, you might be tempted to write Tori
Amos off as the latest pop-culture fad. But as it happens, she's a major
talent: for starters, she's
a masterful pianist, throroughly
versed in pop and classical conventions but with a strikingly
original conception. Her arrangements are usually minimal, giving
her keyboards (now including harpsichord and clavichord) room to
breathe, and she's got an incredible sense of dynamics. Her singing
is her more conventional aspect, emotional wailing or breathy
detachment, influenced by hard rockers like Robert Plant as much as by Kate Bush, to whom
Amos is often compared. Her lyrics... well, often they don't make
any sense, which she says is intentional: she's aiming to create a
mood by using imagery and dream logic, not necessarily to tell a
comprehensible story. A minister's daughter, she sometimes seems more
interested in shocking than in communicating. Still, when she does write
more conventional songs they shine: she can connect mundane events to grand
universal concepts like nobody this side of Paul
Simon, and spill her guts like an angrier Joni Mitchell.
I finally caught Amos in concert in 2007, and reviewed the show here. (DBW)
Y Kant Tori Read (Y Kant Tori Read: 1988)
Tori's first band flopped, and it's easy to hear why: producer Joe Chiccarelli was so enamored of his synth-heavy, genre-neutral, overdone
L.A. hipness, he buried all her songwriting and performing idiosyncracies. He loads the record with gimmicks - "Fayth"
alone features slap bass, metal guitar and Smooth Jazz piano - without noticing the talent that was right under his nose.
The resulting sound is a cross between Berlin and "Love Is A Battlefield"-era Pat Benatar, but without the tunefulness
of either - it's only on the slower numbers ("Fire On The Side," "Cool On Your Island") that you can hear Amos's distinctive
compositional touch, and her piano playing isn't featured anywhere. The lyrics are typically obscure ("Floating City"), and in this
insincere context, they just seem mannered and self-indulgent.
The band is Steve Farris and Steve Caton (guitar), Matt Sorum (drums), Kim Bullard (keys, co-writer of several tracks), plus Paulinho Da Costa (percussion).
The album is way out of print, and though Amos doesn't have
anything nice to say about it, she still occasionally performs a
few of the tunes in concert, including "Etienne."
Little Earthquakes (1992)
Her redebut, with a simpler, piano-led approach. But she's still figuring her act out, and hedges her bets on the opening tracks (including the single "Crucify") with intrusive pop snare drumming. She also relies heavily on religious imagery throughout, and the two long pieces are lackluster ("Mother," title track). On the plus side, all the experimentation does lead her to add generous dollops of electric guitar to the roaring "Precious Things," a direction she hasn't pursued since. And "Happy Phantom," based on a marvelous stride piano line, is openhearted fun, of a kind she rarely allows herself. Then there's the a capella "Me And A Gun,"
which tells of her rape at gunpoint during her Y Kant Tori
Read days. A must for fans, but if you don't like Under The Pink you won't like this either. There are several producers here, including Davitt Sigerson, Ian Stanley, Eric Rosse and Amos herself. (DBW)
Under The Pink (1994)
Plenty of edgy, spare piano-and-voice arrangements ("Bells For Her")
interspersed with more traditional, full-band pop ("Past The Mission" with guest Trent Reznor).
She also uses some more unusual adornments, like the mandolins on the hit "Cornflake Girl," and
a big Elton John-like orchestral buildup on the long album closer "Yes, Anastasia."
The title indicates that the theme here is women's issues, particularly relationships
between women. Personally, I can't tell what most of these songs are about: certainly
the brutal "The Waitress" fits the theme, describing the conflict between the desire to kill a
co-worker and the narrator's pacifism. But there are just as many songs about her religious conflicts,
including the grooving single "God" and the subdued-yet-outrageous "Icicle." "Pretty Good Year" is a quiet lament about wasted lives and
miscommunication that bursts into raging grunge for ten seconds, then dampers down again - it's
extraordinarily moving. Throughout, her ear for melody is unerring, her vocals are focused and intense, and her
piano playing is rich, varied and satisfying. Produced with then-boyfriend Eric Rosse. There's a two-disc import version that contains eleven B-sides from the first two albums, and is well worth getting: there are a few lesser pieces ("Little Drummer Boy," a cover of Joni Mitchell's "A Case Of You"), but most of the tracks are as good as what made it to the regular release ("Honey, "Take To The Sky"), effectively making a coherent double album. (DBW)
Boys For Pele (1996)
By now Rosse was history, and the music is far more unsettling, as she takes on male-female relationships
- the title refers not to soccer great Pelé but to a female Hawaiian god who was propitiated with
male human sacrifices. The piano is now used more to add emotional touches than to carry melodies, and her singing often drops to a tuneless
whisper, making it impossible to enjoy the album as background music - you're forced to listen to it carefully or
not at all. "Caught A Lite Sneeze" is the lightest track, and it's plenty intense. She also uses harpsichord on several of the more rocking numbers, which is a pleasant diversion although
she doesn't show the individual touch that she has on piano. There are magnificent moments here: "Professional Widow" switches from angry moaning to a sudden hymn-like session that's jawdroppingly
beautiful, "Putting The Damage On" is a touching look at a woman who loves too much (or just loves the wrong person), and
"Muhammad My Friend" brings together her gut-level feminism and religious iconoclasm. There are also some short bombastic
nostalgia tracks with the Black Dyke Mills Band. I still don't get some of the more
esoteric numbers like "Beauty Queen/Horses," but it's certainly a heartfelt, unique creation, and the 18-song collection never falls into a rut.
From The Choirgirl Hotel (1998)
This sounds like a retreat to commercial norms: there are fewer tracks but also fewer long ones; there's standard rock
instrumentation on more tracks; Amos's vocals are more subdued. The most significant change for the worse is the appearance of
several drum machine-driven dance tracks, which sound just about like anyone else's dance tracks: simple pentatonic riffs and
simpler repeated refrains with no emotional power ("Raspberry Swirl," "iieee"). Then there are louder revisitings of her
previous work, like the first single "Spark" - which recalls "Caught A Lite Sneeze" - and the bouncy "She's Your Cocaine." The piano
ballads, usually a high point, sound like she's recycling herself: "Northern Lad" is another "Hey Jupiter"-like reworking of
"Purple Rain"; "Jackie's Strength" sounds like a tossoff despite its orchestrated backing.
"Pandora's Aquarium" is more substantive and stands out, though it would have been just another track on either of the two
previous albums. Lyrically, I get next to nothing out of these - I expected it to be obscure but I'd at least hoped for some
exploration of difficult issues (there probably is, but it's so opaque it doesn't matter) and some cool catchphrases.
This could be a transitional piece, or it could be the beginning of a slide into cult-artist irrelevance - time will tell. (DBW)
To Venus And Back (1999)
The mystery deepens: one live disc that's as thrilling and passionate as ever, and one studio disc that's even more
listless than Choirgirl. First, the live set: the band (Steve Caton, guitar; Matt Chamberlain,
drums; Jon Evans, bass) provides lively, sympathetic backing on tunes that often stretch out far longer than their
studio incarnations ("Precious Things" runs over seven minutes, and "Waitress" is more than ten). They rock out on a
couple of numbers that were originally quiet ("Sugar"), but play subtly on more pensive tunes like "Bells For Her."
Amos is usually on piano (though there's some synth), playing tasty solos and evidently improvised introductions ("Cornflake
Girl"), and her vocals hit you in the pit of the stomach. About half the songs are from Pink, and Pele is
represented only by the brief "Mr. Zebra"; the previously unreleased concert favorite "Cooling" is also included. The
studio cuts are somewhere between dreamy and dreary, with repetitive drum loops, trance-style keyboard washes, and
curiously inert vocals, as if Amos were on Valium. There are a few melodies that remind you of her talent ("Concertina,"
"Datura"), and there are none of Choirgirl's aggressively irritating dance tracks, but it's frighteningly
irrelevant. Priced just a few dollars more than a single CD, this is a decent buy even if you throw away the studio disc
- which you may end up doing. (DBW)
Strange Little Girls (2001)
An album of covers, mostly songs about violence: Eminem's
"'97 Bonnie & Clyde," the Stranglers' "Strange Little Girls," Slayer's "Raining Blood."
Remake projects are usually dismal, because the artist is trying to impress you with taste rather than talent,
but this is worse than most. Amos has none of her usual energy, spinning out deadly dull "impressionistic" tracks with unusually bland singing and almost no soloing:
the ten-minute version of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" is the worst offender
(ever notice how hard it is to make a covers album without including a Beatles song?).
Moreover, her feminist conceit of recreating the songs from a female perspective falls flat, because usually
she can't think of any meaningful changes to make: The four musical sections of "Happiness" are reordered 4, 3, 1 2 - whoa! "Heart Of Gold" gets heavy guitars
playing a listless ascending riff - how subversive! And some songs, like Joe Jackson's oh-so-sensitive "Real Men," don't appear to have changed at all.
Continuing the pattern of the past few albums, there's less piano and more bland synthesizer and sound effects (the dirgelike rendition of 10cc's "I'm Not In Love").
Guitarist Adrian Belew uses the same distorted chorus effect at every opportunity; Chamberlain and Evans are also on hand. You'd have to be really under Amos's spell to get anything out of this record.
Scarlet's Walk (2002)
A return to the low-key, piano-led approach of Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink, with just bass (Evans), drums
(Chamberlain) and a guitar or two (Mac Aladdin and Robbie McIntosh). A few tracks with orchestra pleasantly recall early work like
"Anastasia" ("Strange," "Gold Dust"); elsewhere she revisits a number of familiar styles: perky pub music a la "Mr. Zebra" ("Wednesday"),
limber piano lines like "Cornflake Girl" ("Carbon"); spacious ballads with a beat like "Caught A Lite Sneeze" ("A Sorta Fairy Tale"). So there's nothing new, which is okay
with me, but her singing is strangely passionless and her images unevocative, so though the songs are pretty they don't feel like they
matter. And the self-important "I'm Writing About AMERICA" theme doesn't score points with me either ("Amber Waves," the overblown "I Can't
See New York").
Tales Of A Librarian (2003)
Greatest hits with two new songs - "Snow Cherries From France" and "Angels" - and re-recordings of two B-sides: "Mary" and "Sweet Dreams."
Welcome To Sunny Florida (2004)
This live DVD came with a six-song bonus EP, Scarlet's Hidden Treasures, in the same spare piano style of the previous studio album ("Seaside"). The pseudo-samba "Bug A Martini" has a long organ solo that's jazzier than anything else Amos has attempted.
The Beekeeper (2005)
I once read a description of depression as being the state where your perception of people, objects and events in the outside world is unchanged, but you can no longer find meaning or purpose in them. That's sort of how I feel about this album: the usual Amos markers are there - soothing ("Parasol") and bluesy ("Witness") piano numbers; Christian whisker-twitting ("Original Sinsuality");
the way nearly every song ends on a word dying in her throat - but I don't have any kind of feeling, positive or negative, about them.
Maybe it's her overuse of that gimmick where smooth, melodic piano music sugar-coats harsh lyrical content, so that she's most disturbing when she sounds most gentle ("Sweet The Sting" indeed). Certainly there are some exceptionally weak lyrical conceits ("Sleeps With Butterflies"; "The Power Of Orange Knickers").
Adding an additional level of pretension, the songs are organized into groups ("the greenhouse"; "elixirs and herbs") and the booklet lyrics aren't arranged in sequence - I get the point that the album is a honeycomb that shouldn't be viewed as having one specific order, but it's hard enough to make sense of Amos's words without having to keep flipping back and forth looking for them.
The Original Bootlegs (2005)
A 12-CD set presenting six concerts in support of The Beekeeper. Each concert has a few left-field covers ("Total Eclipse Of The Heart"; "Like A Prayer") and at least one show features a gospel choir.
A Piano: The Collection (2006)
A five-CD set containing material from Amos's solo albums (Strange Little Girls excepted), often remixed and resequenced (recalling Neil Young's Decade), plus a wealth of B-sides and outtakes. (DBW)
American Doll Posse (2007)
This time Amos thunk up a bunch of personae (Clyde, Isabel) to sing a few songs apiece. Though they all sound like Tori, the exercise seems to have engaged her: the furious rockers ("Teenage Hustling"; the single "Big Wheel") are a blast, the ballads ("Girl Disappearing") are uncluttered, and both are less distant. Meanwhile, when Amos wants to, she can still write a nearly perfect pop song (the gorgeous, midtempo "Almost Rosey"; the concluding "Dragon").
Along with the standard obliqueness, there are some direct lyrics, either explicitly political ("Yo George") or romance ("Secret Spell").
And for the first time in a while, there are a bunch of minute-long fragments that are surprisingly rich ("Fat Slut" - no, it's not a Bernie Taupin song). Most of the instrumentation is piano-guitar-bass-drums, with nice use of slide ("Code Red") and occasional orchestration.
The 23-track disc is quite long, with some tunes that might have been better saved for B-sides (the oompa "Programmable Soda"; "Posse Bonus") but since it's also her best record in ten years I'm in no mood to nitpick.
Abnormally Attracted To Sin (2009)
At first listen, I thought Amos was heading back to the dreary minimalism of Venus and Strange Litle Girls.
But I was just thrown by the consistently dour tone of the set, because in fact all her usual hallmarks are here: the "Sorta Fairytale"-like ballad with teeth ("Welcome To England"); the dinosaur rock arranging touches ("Jet"-sounding strings on "Strong Black Vine"); the minister's daughter stuff (title track; "Strong Black Vine"). Plus the return of the Beekeeper final-word-dying-in-her-throat thing ("Mary Jane"; "Welcome To England"). Generally her mood ring is set to black ("Ophelia") though there are some rousing numbers ("Police Me"; "Not Dying Today" with a Bo Diddley beat), and the closing "Lady In Blue" builds to a satisfying crescendo pleasantly recalling "Anastasia." Sonically Amos doesn't break new ground, though there is more synth than usual ("Fire To Your Plain") and the orchestrated "That Guy" verges on Adult Contemporary. Well crafted throughout ("Curtain Call") but so melancholy I don't think I'll be spinning this as often as Doll Posse.
Midwinter Graces (2009)
This holiday album presents an EZ-listening version of Amos, without the harshness, confrontation or iconoclasm. You keep waiting for her to jump through the everpresent melancholy ("Candle: Coventry Carol") and ask the assembled company "How's your Jesus Christ been hanging?" but she never does. So if you like Tori's voice and melodic side but wish she weren't so darn cranky about the patriarchy this is the record for you, with a great deal of cleverness in the arrangements - Arabic string bends in "Stars Of Wonder" a.k.a. "We Three Kings"; arpeggiated leaps in "Holly, Ivy And Rose." Generally piano-based, with swathes of orchestration by John Philip Shenale and only light touches of Evans, Chamberlain and Aladdin. Five of the twelve tracks are Amos originals ("Snow Angel" is splendid like an Under The Pink B-side), and the rest are largely adulterated or rewritten - for example, "Harps Of Gold" is really an upbeat, soft-rock take on "Angels We Have Heard On High."
Night Of Hunters (2011)
In a similar vein to the holiday disc, Amos goes full-on classical, with borrowed tunes, an orchestra, and clarinet-heavy arrangements. So far, so good: only a few sources are megafamiliar ("The Case" borrows from Pictures At An Exhibition; Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann are represented by relatively obscure work), and they're capably suffused with murky Amos style ("Shattering Sea," based on a piece by Charles-Valentin Alkan).
There's one major drawback: Amos turns over a lot of space to 11-year-old daughter Natashya Hawley, whose singing is tentative, coy and warbly - all of which sounds particularly false contrasted with Amos's vocals, which are always fully committed, whether you like what she's committing to or not. Apart from that, you may find the project's length daunting even if you're not attention span-challenged, because Amos stays in pretty much the same gear throughout.
Gold Dust (2012)
Again with an orchestra, but this time it's remakes, most of which had strings in the first place ("Yes, Anastasia," cut to half its former length; "Marianne").
The orchestrations don't fundamentally change any of the songs (though "Star Of Winter" goes Arabesque), but fortunately Amos chooses less-familiar material ("Programmable Soda"), though curiously most of the Little Earthquakes hits are revisited ("Precious Things"; also the contemporaneous B-side "Flying Dutchman"). Overall, the performances brim with vigor ("Cloud On My Tongue," which I can never hear too much of), so like a live show, the album is a nice complement to the original versions but nothing more.
I'm quite sure I'm in the wrong song.